Donald Glover: Hip-Hop’s Bruce Banner and His Quest for Happiness

Originally posted on Brightest Young Things on July 31, 2013 


  • Childish Gambino – “Centipede”

We love our stories about dual-personalities.

The Incredible Hulk, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Fight Club (spoiler?)

Except in all those situations above, there’s a fairly obvious personality that we as the audience are supposed to root for. The writers make it simple for the audience because we like our heroes and we like our villains but we like knowing which is which, even/especially if there’s a fun twist involved.

But what if those dual personalities weren’t a matter of ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ just a matter of difference? What if it was a toss-up as to which personality was ‘better’?

How would we react as an audience? Confused? Angry?

And if that’s what an audience might feel, just imagine what this hypothetical fictional character with these separate but equal (yikes) split personalities must be feeling like.

Now you get an idea of where Donald Glover’s at right now.

If you haven’t figured out from the many times I’ve used YouTube clips like this one or this one to make a point, I am an unabashedly fanatic Community fan. I will tell anyone who will listen about how it’s one of the best comedies of all time (Season 4 doesn’t count), citing its ability to not only be hilariously funny but how it’s able to create absurd yet tightly-constructed narratives while still finding ways to tug at the old heartstrings. I am not hyperbolizing when I say I truly believe the world would be a better place if everyone was forced to watch it from start to finish.

I feel the need to drive this point home because I really want to convey just how saddened I am by the fact that Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) has decided to only film 5 of the upcoming 13 episodes for Dan Harmon’s glorious returning Season 5.

But I also want to, as a heartbroken Community fan, make it known that I get it.

I really do.

For the past few years of Donald Glover’s life, which has seen a meteoric rise to stardom, he’s simultaneously grown a cult following for both his role as Troy Barnes on TV and for his hip-hop persona Childish Gambino. While I’m sure the real Donald Glover is a bit closer to Gambino than Troy, he’s still had to deal with the exhaustingly daunting task of living, essentially, three lives.

Glover is intrinsically an entertainer, but with two competing forces pulling him in different directions, it’s easy to see how his third life, his true self, was getting stretched thin.

Two years ago, he was optimistically telling The Village Voice:

You don’t get to where all my heroes were without giving up a part of who you are…I want to be everywhere. I don’t see a limit for me. I want to do everything.” But two years is a long time and almost 28 is a lot different than almost 30. And he’s been hinting about this since at least last year when on his mixtape Royalty‘s opening track, he rapped, “Back of my mind though, I hope the show get’s canceled/maybe then I can focus.

Well, fortunately for me and unfortunately for him, it didn’t (6 SEASONS AND A MOVIE!). Fate wouldn’t make the choice for Donald; he had to make it himself. So he did.

And he seems so much happier now.

I actually first noticed it when I wrote about his guest appearance on Chance The Rapper’s stellar mixtape Acid Rap. He sounded comfortable. I mean, he’s always had a pretty great flow, but this was him casually flexing like I hadn’t heard since “Freaks and Geeks.” With the choice made, he’s been able to focus on himself and his newly singular goal.

And I think that explains his “mysterious” social media disappearance that sent TIME into a tizzy. Yeah, there was some marketing strategy behind it, but for the first time, it was Donald Glover being “Donald Glover who is Childish Gambino” (is your whole brain crying with that one?).

And it’s what makes “Centipede” such a big deal.

The multi-part hip-hop concerto flows seamlessly through a voyeuristically raw a cappella introduction, aching piano-backed verses and choruses, a brutally honest breakdown that explodes into Yeezus-like fury, and a confrontational spoken-word outro. It is everything that Gambino, who has Donald’s full attention now, is and can be. He gets to play the role of crooner and rapper, soulful bard and swaggered thug, beaten-down victim and resilient conqueror. The schizophrenically-composed song, while dissimilar in style, all still underline that Gambino is not only talented, but aware of where he sits post-Decision. He’s read the shitty Pitchfork reviews and he’s heard that Dan Harmon has said that his leaving Community is “devastating. It’s heart-wrenching.

But as I write this essay, I see that he’s posted a trailer for something called “Clapping For The Wrong Reasons” featuring cameos by Chance the Rapper, Trinidad James, Danielle Fishel (aka Topanga), Flying Lotus, and Abella Anderson, and it’s apparent that the choice to be Gambino, not Troy, isn’t about choosing acting over music; it’s choosing one path over another, the one that he believes will be most fulfilling. I’m sure there’s a strong argument to be made for choosing the different path that leads to a life at Greendale (and I’d be happy to make it), but if you listen to the words of “We Ain’t Them”, “I got the same speech when I left 30 Rock/My mom was like ‘Why you wanna leave a good job?’/My dad like ‘Do your thing, boy, don’t stop‘,” you realize he’s heard it all before.

And he seems so much happier now.